Engaging with marginalized social histories and recognizing the psychic consequences these histories hold for the treatment dyad poses a challenge for psychoanalysis. Bottom line, the fact that social history is a source of distress outside of the control of the individual has always been a conceptually difficult yet clinically pressing issue for psychoanalysis.
A few years ago, I did a presentation to maintenance workers and managers on healthy ways of caring for the self in a time of institutional cutbacks. The group was comprised exclusively of persons of color, most of them females and many with expressive Spanish as their preferred mode of speaking. So while they had a good working knowledge of what I was saying, it was difficult for them to share their perspectives in English. I asked them to respond in Spanish and then had someone interpret. The interaction became more animated as the volume of comments increased dramatically. They spoke of healthy practices that were familiar but not necessarily still practiced. One woman, for example, spoke about the benefits of making tea using dried orange peel. This triggered much laughter as many remembered that, as children, they struggled to master the art of peeling the entire orange without the peel breaking or bruising the skin.
Our psychological selves reflect the influence of the experience and interpretation of these quotidian acts across time. While some acts, like traditions of self-care, are self-affirming and form a basis of our sense of agency, others are painful and unduly constrain us. For all of us, there is the temptation to avoid the painful aspects of our histories by acting as if we are outside of them, exempt from their structural and psychic consequences. Psychoanalysis both hinders and facilitates the acknowledgment and reinterpretation of history by what it privileges and by what it marginalizes.
By “history” I mean a focus on the ways in which we have been socialized to interpret events — each with its own bias — and how that process continues to influence our contemporary and future intra- and inter-psychic activities and actions. We are not necessarily psychic slaves to these longstanding interpretations, and with help, often at painful cost, we can reimagine the past as a future in ways that are ethical, healthy, and instructive. Alongside this possibility, however, is the all too human fantasy of being untouched by some painful aspects of history. Individuals in pursuit of a mythic sense of self that is emotionally or politically unfettered often severely discount the past. This pursuit is often supported by groups and institutions to which they have strong emotional and often irrational attachments.
Some would argue that the idea of America is that of a psychosocial space where one can reinvent the self unencumbered by the past. We are, however, never outside of the impact of history. We are never able to completely escape history’s gravitational pull, its effects on selfmaking. But history can be thoughtfully used to reanimate the self, and through judicious reinterpretation, an understanding of history can be used to limit its negative effects.
A positive interpretation of one’s historical experience is vital for good-enough well-being. This provides the foundation for a sense that one is a part of something larger than one’s self. It provides a continuity that predates one’s existence and will continue after one’s death. Such an ethically informed perception of history is the basis of a good-enough sense of agency and of self-esteem. One feels cared for and that there is the possibility of having some impact on the world. Such experiences do not have to provide unalloyed pleasure, and the interpretations need not devalue others or unduly marginalize. The inevitable compromises and attendant narcissistic injuries are the basis of resilience and hope.
There is a story told of Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet, standing in front of a prison where loved ones, including her son, Lev Gumilev (who would later come to embody his own dispiriting historical denialism), were being held as political prisoners. One of the other mothers standing with her outside the walls turned to the poet, saying, “Can you describe this?” Akhmatova reassured her that she would. This event was not unique; it was not without a history; therefore, it could be understood, contextualized, and possibly addressed. Far too often, those who have been victimized are treated as if they lack any other subjectivities or as if they lack a history of substantive agency that can be mobilized in the service of memory, reflection and healing. Oftentimes, with the best of intentions, many feel — or are made to feel — immobilized, like a plaything of remote, capricious, and protean-like gods. Appearing to be outside of history is also observable among groups who have experienced a loss of status, a diminished sense of privilege, and new limits on previously unbounded access to resources. This experience of decline gives rise to an Orwellian psychosocial denialism within elements of certain racial/ethnic groups, gender and sexual constellations, and some religious organizations. Their unearned privilege, the traditions they celebrate, their exclusionary approaches regarding their community, and the respect they feel entitled to are being contested.
Denying their long history of plunder and exploitation devolves to a perversion of what we accept as victimhood and leads these groups to perceive themselves as victims of discrimination. Some groups and individuals link the new ethical constraints imposed on their status and access as the loss of their privilege of exceptionality. They feel that they have been relegated to the status of “mere equals” of the many whom they have denigrated across time — a bald-faced but unconscious renunciation of egalitarianism.
Unconscious generational transmissions of privilege — much like unconscious generational transmission of trauma — have intrapsychic and sociological implications on agency and on psychic and material reality. We see again and again among certain elements of white folks the assertion of an illusory but strongly held sense of privilege which conflicts with their economic interests. The rejection of Obamacare and the acceptance of Trump-initiated loss of benefits are just two illustrations.
To address this crisis, psychoanalysis needs to expand the range of what history encompasses. Such an approach would facilitate a more accurate reading of transference within a socially informed understanding of agency on the part of both therapist and analyst. Finally, more attention needs to be paid to the psychosocial processes informing the pursuit and fulfillment of identity claims. Increasingly, we find our often-contradictory identity claims leaving us in an intrapsychic space of in-between-ness. We hyphenate our cultural identities, and many of us are fluid in our gender and sexuality preferences. Stephen Mitchell has written insightfully about this fluidity of self, while Gary Walls has outlined culture’s influence on aspects of the self that are unconsciously deployed in any given situation. Farhad Dalal, among other psychoanalytic thinkers, has bemoaned the reductive tendency to privilege psyche while marginalizing the macro-social contributions to psychic dysfunction. History shadows us. Engaging with the shadows of our history will help us deal with our uncertainty and our constrained agencies in ways that do not diminish ourselves or others. ■
- C. Jama Adams, PhD, is associate professor in the department of Africana studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY). His most recent book, Africana Peoples in China: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Migration Experiences, Identity, and Precarious Employment, was published by Routledge in 2018.
- Photograph by Tertia Van Rensburg. 16-22 Berwick Rd, Cape Town, South Africa.